Chinmaya Gharekhan, India's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Speaks to Siraj Wahab of Arab News
JEDDAH, September 10, 2007 — Chinmaya Gharekhan is a veteran Indian diplomat. What adds to his prestige is his recent appointment by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh as the special envoy to the Middle East. He has been the longest serving Indian permanent representative to the United Nations (from 1986 to 1992). An undersecretary-general for nearly seven years afterward, he was the secretary-general’s special representative in the Security Council for four years. From 1997 till the end of 1999, Gharekhan was UN special representative in the occupied Palestinian territories with headquarters in Gaza City. He is currently touring the Middle East to express India’s support for the Middle East peace process. While in Saudi Arabia, he spoke on a range of issues. Following are excerpts from the exclusive interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2007, at the Jeddah Conference Palace:
Q: This is the first time that India has named a special envoy for this region, right?
A: Yes, this is the first time that India has named a special envoy to West Asia or what you call the Middle East. It is indicative of the interest and concern that we have for the region and its people. The idea behind appointing a special envoy is to share with the people and the governments of this region the problems that we all face and to express our solidarity with its people and governments.
Q: Is there something special at this point that brings you here?
A: The love and affection for the people of Saudi Arabia. I will be conveying my prime minister’s message to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. And I am sure he will have some good advice for me. Basically we want to reiterate our strong commitment for the cause of Palestine. And since we support the inalienable rights of the Palestinians, we want to explore what India can do, if anything at all, in pushing forward the Middle East peace process.
Q: India is seen as close to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. That puts you in a good position to play the role of a mediator.
A: Both parties, the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, certainly feel very happy that we have good relations with them. I have made it very clear to the Israelis that our growing relationship with them is not at the expense of our commitment to the Palestinian cause. They have no difficulty with that.
Q: But there is certainly an element of uneasiness here in the Arab world about India’s growing defense ties with Israel. Have you noticed that during your current visit to the region?
A: Nobody has mentioned this to me. Nor did I notice it. Yes, we have this relationship (with Israel). And I am not being defensive about it. It is our sovereign right and duty to do whatever is necessary to protect and further our national interests. The governments and leaders that I spoke to in the region have not expressed any reservations about India’s having this kind of relationship with Israel. There may be some sections of public opinion that are not very happy and I am quite sure that some countries are doing their best to spread disinformation about India’s relationship with Israel. I am sure the people of this country, as well as other Arab countries, will and do appreciate that governments have to do everything necessary for the protection and promotion of their independence and national interests.
Q: As a seasoned diplomat are you comfortable with this U-turn in India’s foreign policy? India has all along followed the time-tested Nehruvian policy of nonalignment. And suddenly we see Delhi growing too close to the United States.
A: A country’s foreign policy cannot be based on sentiments or emotions. Foreign policy is a hardheaded, calculated game. Some people in India have not got used to this sudden shift. As professionals, however, we ought not to have any permanent attachments. If we think having good and close relations with the United States is in our interest, we will do that. And we are doing that.
Q: This surely must have led to a lot of disappointment among Third World countries who have always looked to India to take an independent line?
A: Not at all. In fact, every nonaligned country, every Third World country, all the Arab countries, everyone has the same desire — to get close to the United States. If anything, there might be a sense of jealousy as to how India could manage successfully to overcome the burdens of the past and establish a closer relationship with the United States.
Q: You have been associated with the United Nations for quite a long time. And your book, “Horseshoe Table,” is said to be a lively read on the organization. And so you are the right person to answer this question: Is the UN relevant?
A: I am convinced that it is relevant. Certainly its credibility, its influence and its prestige have suffered enormously in the last four or five years because of what has happened in Iraq. But if there were no United Nations, the whole world would not at this moment be coming together to decide how to create a new United Nations. Certainly the United Nations needs reforms, needs changes. One of the most important reforms that it has to carry out is to make it more representative, especially the Security Council. You can’t have a Security Council with the same 15 members for 40 years. Its membership hasn’t changed but the world has changed. And so has the balance of power.
Q: What are India’s chances of becoming a UN Security Council member?
A: Insha Allah. With Saudi Arabia’s support and in the course of time it will happen. I am convinced that this will happen but I don’t know when.
Q: You talked about UN losing prestige in Iraq. What is the way out in Iraq?
A: The best way out of Iraq is for the Iraqi people to sit together and to promote national reconciliation. They should take charge of their affairs, free of any foreign interference and certainly free of any foreign occupation. The US has to leave at some point. People in America themselves want their troops to leave Iraq. How to work out the modalities? That is certainly the question. And one that does not have an easy answer.
Q: You were very close to the late Yasser Arafat. Any reflections?
A: Had it not been for Arafat, the Palestinian cause would never have been at the center of things today. The fact that everybody, including the president of the United States, recognizes that Palestine is the core issue is all thanks to Arafat. I am impressed by President Mahmoud Abbas as well. I know him and have dealt with him over the years and I met him last week in Ramallah. He is a self-assured leader, a very confident leader. He certainly knows how to proceed. And so more strength to him.
Q: What about the Hamas leadership?
A: We have no dealings with Hamas. We are only supporting the Palestinian Authority led by President Abbas. We are, however, saddened by the infighting among the Palestinians. This is a serious setback. Palestinians should realize that their strength lies in unity. They should support Abu Mazen and his leadership and persuade Hamas to give up its ideology of violence.
Q: You think we are close to the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel?
A: You can’t afford to be a pessimist. One has to keep hope alive, most of all, the Palestinian people do. If they give up hope, then there is nothing left for them except maybe more violence. And we have seen violence does not get anywhere. But as of now, everyone tells me — and I cannot go against the considered Arab assessment — that there is a window of opportunity. There is a set of circumstances in today’s world that gives us some reason to expect something good.
Q: How do you see developments in Pakistan?
A: India strongly wants a stable, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan and that the country should be at peace with itself so that it can be at peace with its neighbors.
Q: But Kashmir still remains the key issue...
A: Kashmir is an issue that has to be resolved. Even the Shimla Agreement of 1972 says that. We are, however, very happy that Pakistan has now finally realized and come to the conclusion that Kashmir can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations. In other words, direct talks between India and Pakistan, without the mediation or interference of any third party. That is a healthy development and we welcome that. We have been having talks with Pakistan. My prime minister and the Pakistani president have met a couple of times. Then there are special people on both sides who are talking on this issue. A lot of progress has been made as far as Kashmir is concerned. But of course there is always the problem of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan continues to support that. Funding and financing of cross-border terrorism is going on even as we speak.
Q: Do you still think the Pakistani establishment is behind these incursions?
A: Do you have any doubts about it?
Q: What about India’s relationship with Iran?
A: We have excellent relations with Iran. No problem there.
Q: But then India voted against Iran in IAEA...
A: We voted the way we voted in IAEA because that is the way we thought we should vote. We know that Iran is a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and as a signatory to it, Iran must fulfill its obligations and commitments. And we expect Iran to fulfill its international obligations.
Q: Are you going ahead with the gas pipeline with Iran?
A: India needs energy from all sources. Nuclear energy is one alternative that we are going to tap further as a result of our civilian nuclear agreement with the US. We need oil, we need gas. We are making progress on the pipeline issue.